For the next month, soccer fans watching the World Cup will see more fake injuries than any amount of magic spray could possibly cure. And by fake I mean diving, flopping, conniving—temporarily feigning injury in an effort to draw an advantageous ruling on the field.
Although seen in international soccer with regularity, diving during the World Cup happens in greater frequency because the stakes are higher. (This is the world championship, after all, held once every four years.) And when the stakes are higher, cowardice teams will employ anything they can for an edge.
“In the British game, it is often seen as an import from foreign players,” says psychologist Paul Morris, who studies diving at the University of Portsmouth. “Many people argue that it has been common in Italian football for decades.”
While Italians may have started it, diving exploits have become systematic “since the ’80s and ’90s,” says Morris. In fact, the English themselves—alongside other European, Latino, and African nations—are some of the biggest perpetrators. What’s more, American stars like Landon Donovan that are trying to make a name for themselves abroad flop too.
While NBA stars have also been known to take a few dives, “Soccer players embellish more than in other sports,” Morris says.
The reasons are complex, he says. For one thing, soccer rewards agility over toughness. “Soccer is not such a physical challenge as other sports such as rugby or American Football where there is a direct confrontation,” Morris explains. “If you lose the physical confrontation, you often lose the game. And showing weakness by pretending to be hurt is unlikely to intimidate your opponent. In fact, in both rugby and American football, you don’t want to show that you can be hurt or knocked about easily.”
What’s more, exaggerating fouls in soccer impacts the game more than in other sports, including basketball. “The benefits of getting a penalty in soccer are hugely bigger than the benefits of free throws in basketball on the overall result of the game,” says, Morris. If you’ll remember, many soccer scoreboards read 1-0 at the end of the game, compared to basketball being won by upwards of 100 points on each side.
In addition to making a spectacle out of the so-called “beautiful game,” it’s never fun to be on the opposite end of a bad call, especially one instigated by a player. So what can be done, if anything, to rid the game of diving?
Educating referees on how to spot fakers is a start (i.e. when someone is legitimately injured, they suddenly drop to the grown with little to no movement, as opposed to raising limbs and appearing as though your face had just been hit with battery acid.) But the only way we’ll ever see the end of diving is by way of instant and post-game replay, says Morris. “Just as you can be punished using video evidence after the game for violent offenses, I think blatant cheating by simulation should also be punishable using video evidence.”
Ultimately, though, Morris acknowledges cheating on both sides of the field, whether on offense or on defense. “The one thing I would say in defense of the diver is that tacklers also commit intentional fouls. So both attackers and defenders cheat, they just do it in different ways. So we have to encourage honesty and fair play as part of the entire culture of soccer.”